Above: Florence  never had a memorial in her own country but the little country of Grenada recently issued a stamp in her honor (top right). It was part of a set honoring pioneers of the silver screen and incorporating a poster from the Palace Theatre, the high-church of vaudeville. Florence never actually made it to the screen but  was the first black star - male or female- to headline at the Palace

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The Early Years

The Lean Years

Fame at Last

International Stardom

Finale and Curtain



The Early Years

  • Born January 25 in Goat Alley, a Washington DC slum, to ex-slave parents. 
  • Wins talent contest for Buck and Wing dancing.
  •  Entertains diplomatic set & is given gold bracelet by British ambassador's wife
  • Makes professional debut as guest star 'Baby Florence' in Avery & Hart presentation of popular Williams & Walker show The Sons of Ham, singing Aida Overton Walker's hit 'Miss Hannah from Savannah'
  • Florence joins touring company of Vaudeville star 'Bonita', as a dancing Pick (Pickaninny)
  • She is arrested as an underage performer & institutionalized for a time. 
  • The family moves to New York, eventually Harlem, & Florence goes to normal schooling  for a while

The Lean Years

  • Florence joins her two older sisters, Olivia & Maude, playing black vaudeville and local Harlem theatres (including the famous Lincoln) as 'The Mills Sisters'.
  • A starring role in a Cecil Mack (R C McPherson) production causes leading Black critic Lester Walton to say Florence will one day have her name up in lights
  • The Mills Sisters tour widely (Chicago, Indianapolis, and south); Florence continues with Olivia after Maude marries comedian Hamtree Harrington, until Olivia retires 
  • Florence teams up with Kinky Caldwell in a successful  traveling 'sister' act but it  breaks up when Caldwell marries
  • Florence moves to Chicago and becomes a member of the Panama Trio, with Bricktop and Cora Green
  • They play the notorious black-and-tan Panama Cafe, along with such jazz notables as Alberta Hunter, Glover Compton & Mezz Mezzrow
  • Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, one of the Trio's admirers, gives tap lessons to Florence
  • A shooting scandal causes the Panama cafe to be closed by the police.  The Trio continues to play local venues for a while
  • Panama Trio disbands
  • Florence joins The Tennessee Ten, a very successful black troupe with a talented jazz band whose dancing director, Ulysses 'Slow Kid' Thompson, is destined to become her lifelong partner
  • The Ten achieve a high profile as support for leading Vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies star Nora Bayes in her own show, The Songs We Love to Sing.
  • Kid Thompson is drafted for World War I overseas  service, in France
  • The Panama Trio re-forms, with Bricktop replaced by Carolyn Williams
  •  Legendary ragtime pianist, Tony Jackson (composer of 'Pretty Baby') makes up the Panama Four for one engagement before the girls go on a lengthy and very successful tour of Canada and the West, finishing up in San Francisco where Carolyn Williams marries
  • Florence re-joins Kid Thompson and the Tennessee Ten
  • They are hugely successful in a show called Folly Town, which also included Bert Lahr (The Cowardly Lion) and Jack Haley (The Tin Man)
  • Florence plays Harlem's famous  Lincoln Theatre under her own name, billed as "Harlem's dainty, sweet singer"
  • The sensational Black musical Shuffle Along ('I'm Just Wild About Harry', 'Love Will Find a Way') takes Broadway by storm
  •  Knowing how talented Florence is, and sensing a new era in black entertainment, Kid Thompson becomes Florence's manager, they move to New York and get married.
  •  Bricktop finds her a job at Barron Wilkins's Club, singing from table to table, while they wait their chance.  

Fame at last

  • Star Gertrude Saunders leaves Shuffle Along for bigger money and is replaced by Florence, who proves an even bigger sensation than Gertrude and becomes a  star overnight
  • Promoter Lew Leslie builds an all black show around Florence at the Plantation restaurant on Broadway.  She becomes the darling of fashionable society, featuring in Vogue & Vanity Fair
  •  Billboard notes  she has " her name in lights on Broadway . . . an even hundred of them"
  • Famous British theatre impresario C. B. Cochran brings Florence's show to London where, despite some nasty racist opposition, she scores a huge success.
  •  Said Cochran: "That night, and every night she appeared at the London Pavilion, Florence Mills received an ovation each time she came on stage - before every song she sang. This is a tribute which in my experience I have never known to be offered to any other artist. In my humble opinion Florence Mills is one of the greatest artists of our time."
  • Triumphantly back in America, Florence is invited to guest star in the Greenwich Village Follies in October.  A group of white actors stage a walk-out in protest against higher billing for a black performer but eventually back down
  • Florence's new show Dixie to Broadway is a phenomenal success on Broadway and on the road.
  •  Her new theme song 'I'm a Little Blackbird looking for a Bluebird'  is widely recognized as a thinly veiled protest against racial inequality
  • In June Florence heads the bill at the Palace Theatre, the first black performer to achieve vaudeville's highest honor
  • Late in 1925, her new show Blackbirds opens, destined for France & England
  • Florence makes a sensational concert appearance at New York's Aeolian Hall, singing 4 pieces specially written for her by her friend, dean of African American classical composers William Grant Still, and conducted by Eugene Goossens, in front of a distinguished audience including Toscanini and George Gershwin
  • Blackbirds plays the Alhambra in Harlem, Florence's farewell to her friends and supporters before departing for France & England

International stardom

  • Blackbirds is a huge success in Paris and Ostend.  Florence tops charity bill  along with Maurice Chevalier. Shares billing at Les Ambassadeurs with Paul Whiteman's orchestra
  • Blackbirds opens at London Pavilion in September.  All London is seized by Blackbirds mania and Blackbirds  parties become the rage, with high society folk entertaining the performers. The Prince of Wales is a frequent audience member, singing along with Florence
  • Florence is noted for her charitable activities, visiting children's hospitals and distributing money to the homeless on the Thames Embankment. She speaks out on racial issues and promotes the NAACP
  • In April Blackbirds reaches its 250th performance at the London Pavilion. The  strain of two shows a day plus matinees and charity benefits has taken a heavy toll on Florence &  cast members can see she is visibly exhausted and ill

Finale and Curtain

  • In August Blackbirds tours the provinces but after the Liverpool engagement doctors tell Florence she must stop & get medical attention or she will die
  • Florence & Kid Thompson go to Baden Baden, Germany for a rest cure.  In spite of her serious condition, she flies to Berlin to help friend Bricktop, in legal trouble over contractual matters
  • In September, Florence & Kid arrive back in USA where they are feted with banquets and special ceremonies.  She postpones medical treatment because her mother is ill
  • On October 25 Florence enters hospital for treatment of a tubercolosis-related ailment but her condition has already deteriorated and even a second operation can't save her.  Knowing she is dying, she sings songs to cheer her nurses & manager Lew Leslie
  • At 4:00 am on November 1st, Florence Mills dies.  Her last words were "I don't want anyone to cry when I die.  I just want to make people happy, always"
  • November 6: Florence Mills funeral was the largest Harlem had ever seen.  There is a legend that a flock of blackbirds flew over the funeral cortege. In Porter Grainger's words "She has gone to join the songbirds in Heaven".  Elaborate plans to erect monuments to her all fizzled out

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The Book!


Harlem Renaissance

Friends & Associates

Commemorative items

Her shows, her Music


Buildings and places

Trivia: Everything you wanted . . .


Other links & connections